B12: The Misunderstood Vitamin
By Jim Van Alstine
Meat-eaters often use the B12 issue to argue against
vegetarianism. According to myth, vitamin B12 comes only from animal sources so
a vegan diet is not healthfully sustainable. Sometimes even misinformed doctors
assume that the sole source of B12 is the digestive tracts of slaughtered
animals because B12 is indeed found in relatively high concentrations in the
guts of animals.
This finding leads to the further assumption that B12 is an
animal byproduct. In truth, B12 is made by bacteria, not by the animal in which
the bacteria lives.
B12 is present where the bacteria that produce it live: in the
soil, water, animal intestines or any environment that supports the growth of
Vegans often pay special attention to vitamin B12 out of fear
of becoming deficient in this important nutrient. Thus many vegetarian foods,
including meat substitutes, breakfast cereals, and some soymilks are fortified
with B12. Another B12 source popular among vegans is nutritional yeast flakes,
an inactive yeast with an earthy, cheesy taste.
Why do we need B12?
Vitamin B12 works in conjunction with folic acid and Vitamin
B6 to control levels of the amino acid called homocysteine in the blood. Too
much homocysteine can increase the risk of stroke or heart disease and can
contribute to osteoporosis and Alzheimer’s disease.
What happens if we don’t get enough B12? Dr. Michael Greger
www.veganmd.com bluntly answers, “…severe
irreversible brain damage.” He refers to severe deficiency, but slight
deficiency can cause unusual fatigue, faulty digestion, nausea, loss of
appetite, and absence of menstruation (amenorrhea).
To supplement or not to supplement?
The human body is capable of storing B12 for long periods, but
many vegan doctors and experts on nutrition including Dr.
Greger, Jack Norris, George Eisman and Dr. Neil Bernard emphasize the importance
of regular B12 intake.
“Human beings need regular, reliable intakes of B12. The
evidence is perfectly clear.” Greger said, “You either eat adequate fortified
foods or take supplements. There is little disagreement on this among experts of
A few dissenting voices, on the other hand, claim that an
un-supplemented vegan diet need not result in a B12 problem. Robert Cohen, the
“Not Milk Man” even goes so far as to condemn those who advocate supplementing
B12 as having fallen victim to a meat and pharmaceutical industry conspiracy to
undermine the vegan ideal. “The message is this: It is unhealthy to be a vegan.
It is unhealthy to be a vegetarian. If you are a vegetarian or vegan and do not
take artificial supplements produced in factories by pharmaceutical companies,
you will not be as healthy as a meat eater,” claims Cohen.
Is B12 vegan?
Since the traditional source of B12 is the digestive tract of
animals, how can a vegan supplement B12? According to the
Nutraceutical Corporation, makers of VegLife, their B12 source used in their
B-Complex supplement comes from a “microbial fermentation of brown rice.” The
soymilk called Silk uses a fortified B12 source from a vegetable glucose
fermentation process claims the company’s website
How do health risks of vegans and meat eaters compare?
At least one major study found that B12 deficiency is common,
yet few of those studied complained of symptoms or were diagnosed with B12
deficiency or its more drastic complication, pernicious anemia. Vegans may have
an elevated risk of B12 deficiency, but the degree of this risk has yet to be
In fact, what we know about health and veganism is more
certain regarding heart disease, stroke and high blood pressure. We know surely
that people who eat an abundance of animal products are at higher risk of heart
disease, stroke and other diseases affecting the blood vessels including high
Dr. William Castelli, the physician in charge of the largest
heart disease study in the United States, the Framingham Heart study, looked at
the impact of diet and came out solidly on the side of vegetarians. He wrote,
“Vegetarians have the best diet. They have the lowest rates of coronary disease
of any group in the country... they have a fraction of our heart attack rate and
they have only 40 percent of our cancer rate.”
In a head-to-head comparison of leading diet-related health
risks, meat eaters face a 40 percent chance of dying from a cardiovascular
disease, while a vegan has a risk of pernicious anemia of maybe one in 10,000,
and perhaps a three percent greater risk of iron deficiency than that of meat
Not much of a race.